Terrence Malick has written and directed a testament to the human soul, demonstrating the power of God, truth, love and the call made on one man to rise above tyranny. A Hidden Life depicts the real martyrdom of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to take a loyalty oath to Adolf Hitler and was executed in 1943. This is the most concrete, realistic, and least abstract film of Malick’s since The Thin Red Line (1998). Unlike much of his previous work, there is regular dialogue, turning points, conflicts, character arcs, resolution, in short something that works within the bounds of conventional film-making. Malick devotees scoff at such judgments, but while norms in a craft can be transcended, they cannot be entirely ignored. Malick’s trademark voice-overs, and his characters in dialogue but seemingly speaking to the viewer, work masterfully in this film. They drive the film forward. More than this, the film is searing, exposing everything it touches: Nazism, mass murder, a corrupted legal system, a fearful Church, the goodness, ignorance, and hatred of human community, and the intoxication of evil. There is also mercy and sacrifice, but seemingly smaller and of little weight against the balance of forces that Franz and his wife, Franziska “Fani” (Valerie Pachner) face.
Franz is played by August Diehl and with Fani has three daughters. They reside in St. Radegund, in the mountains of Austria, their village lightly touched by twentieth century farming techniques and other forms of technology. An opening shot shows Franz and Fani clearing their fields with a scythe, not a tractor, moving together rhythmically as a unit. At the film’s beginning in 1939, Fani remarks “How simple life was then. It seemed no trouble could reach our valley. We lived above the clouds.” Amidst sweeping scenes of the mountains and their idyllic village of farmers, millers, bakers, and tradesmen, clouds soon rise in the form of Anschluss and the service that Austria will have to give to the war effort of its new master, Adolf Hitler. Franz, a farmer, a sacristan, and father, serves in a transportation unit, but is temporarily released from active duty when the French surrender in 1940. During his brief stint, he watches news and film reels and concludes that the German war effort is an unjust one. He asks “what’s happened to our country?” Don’t the people “know evil when they see it?” We no longer know “our true Fatherland.”
What has already happened, though, is that people have learned to live with the lie. The mayor of St. Radegund confidently states that before (Hitler) arrived, the people were nothing. There is not the slightest evidence of positive change to the village, only the increasing rolls of her men sent to war, with some of them sent back in coffins. He rolls off bromides about “one race” and its enemies, almost howling at the moon in one scene while moving around an open fire. He needs to convince himself, it seems.
Franz will need to convince himself also of refusing to serve the Reich and swear loyalty to the Führer. His process is both logical and graced by the supernatural. He evokes the distinction between just and unjust war, concluding that the German effort flagrantly offends the requirements of a just war. A faithful Catholic, he communicates his dissent with his parish priest, Fr. Fürthauer, a man who replaced the previous priest, Fr. Karobath, jailed for giving an anti-Nazi sermon. To Franz’s statement that “I can’t serve. We are killing innocent people. Raiding other countries. Preying on the weak. And the priests call them heroes, even saints—the soldiers that do this,” Fr. Fürthauer responds with utilitarian reasoning: “Your sacrifice would benefit no one.” Franz replies, “my fear is that I would do …” “Wrong?” Fr. Fürthauer almost mocks him. “Which is the greater wrong,” he asserts. How often, Fr. Fürthauer says, “have I wanted to act on all I believe, but I have to think whom I might harm.” What is remarkable about this exchange is the visible fear displayed by Fr. Fürthauer of being heard, found out, and known as one who stands in judgment of the law. We quickly learn the source of Fr. Fürthauer’s reasoning when he states, “No Catholic who refuses military service will get any support from his spiritual leaders.” He won’t be on the hook.
The Church has made a separate peace. Accordingly, when Franz visits the Bishop of Linz about his troubled conscience, he is told, “You have a duty to the Fatherland, the church teaches it.” But Franz wonders if the Bishop viewed him as one of his flock, a sheep, or as a potential spy, a wolf. Franz who clears his fields with a scythe, might be, according to Fr. Fürthauer, “a Gestapo agent coming to trap them with your questions—to lead them into an act of treason.” Franz knows that he is alone with this decision. The clergy of the Church that he loves, the Church that will name him “Blessed” in 2007, are silent. Franz never gives up on his Church and his Faith, observing “after centuries of failure, we need a successful saint.”
Hitler is not silent. Juxtaposed to the beautiful and soaring images of upper Austria, which richly combine with the depth of the voiceovers of Franz and Fani, are grainy, historical footages of Hitler’s speeches and rallies and scenes from Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, as the war effort marches on. Hitler’s mesmerized audiences stand in contrast to the lonely Franz who finally decides to refuse to serve and take the loyalty oath. He isn’t totally alone, though. Fani’s love for Franz is so complete that she joins herself to his decision, even though it means death and horrible grief, and that she will raise their three girls alone. In this, she finds herself a pariah of the village, hated by her neighbors. Franz isn’t a hero to their community. The mayor tells him “You are worse than the enemy, you are one of them, you are a traitor.”
Imprisoned, Franz’s final journey begins. One mark of this film is how his faithful witness cuts through the maze of lies that all manner of Reich officials have accepted. He leaves their own souls accused of wrongdoing, a piercing reminder that they serve a madman and his machinery. A representative of the government questions Franz in prison in an eerily similar manner to Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor. After the utilitarian appeals to Franz of the worthlessness of his resistance, he asks “How do you know what is good and bad?” He follows up, “You think he wants your blood in order to satisfy him?” It is God, he says, that “created evil.” Your conscience is itself the source of your troubles, he evokes. After several more unavailing attempts, he offers him freedom, if he will just sign the oath. Franz simply replies, “But I am free.”
When Franz is brought before a Reich tribunal in Berlin, he is silent before the judicial panel that imposes his death sentence. They seem uncomfortable with killing him, even the judge that screams uncontrollably at Franz for his silence when asked to defend himself reveals his own discomfiture. A senior member of the panel, Judge Lueben (Bruno Ganz) speaks to Franz privately in his chambers to ask him why he does this: “Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside of this court ever hear you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before. You’ll vanish.” Franz replies, “I stand by what I have said.” The judge tries again, “It is you, not I, who pronounce the sentence. You, the judge.” And Franz in a sense is the judge. Unsettled by Franz’s witness, his resolute stature, it is the judge who ends by asking “Do you judge me?” Franz replies, “No, I do not judge you.” He admits that he can’t see everything. “But, I have that feeling inside me that I can’t do what I believe is wrong.”
In moving letters to Fani, we learn that something else has confirmed Franz’s decision to accept his death. He has experienced the freedom that does not end. This freedom is born from mercy, that he extends to others, and that he believes God has extended to him. As he says, “When I give up the idea of surviving at any price, a new light floods in.” Those who have read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago will recall his similar observation about what he experienced when he accepted all of the pain of the Gulag, and refused to play deceitful games in order to live. Franz notes, “You can understand the weakness of others.” At his execution, he doesn’t flail or moan as some fellow condemned prisoners do. He kisses one, before they lead him away. Franz accepted this moment long ago. His wife’s conscience speaks to him in the end, “I’ll see you again in the mountains.”